A/N This is actually a long overdue reward for Nightarcher210, who correctly guessed "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," as a shaping influence in my long batfic "Night Falling." The prize was a 5-7 batfic written on any topic of the winner's choice. Nightarcher requested something using my interpretations of Batman and Robin and the Ledger/Nolan Joker.
For readers not familiar with my other stories: The only back story you need to know is that in addition to being Robin, Richard "Rick" Grayson is a chess whiz, and he has a tutor named Alex. Skip the note below and go straight to the story!
For readers of my others stories: It was a bit of a struggle to write this scene for a variety of reasons, but partly because the Joker will eventually be reappearing in my batfic cycle, and I didn't want to write anything that actually belonged in there. So I made a small change to Rick's character, which is that he no longer has a phobic fear of clowns. This made the scene play differently enough that I wasn't afraid of it duplicating anything I'll eventually be writing for the "Nestling" stories.
Disclaimer Do we really have to go here? It's so depressing.
Rick hit his clock and wondered how he had let Alex talk him into another chess competition. His tutor made periodic attempts to engage his interest in the events, broadly hinting that competitive chess was a much better hobby than polo, more intellectually stimulating and less likely to leave you with nasty bruises. His sheer persistence had worn Rick down, until he sat here, across from a Korean girl who would, he suddenly realized, beat him if he didn't start paying attention.
She slashed in unexpectedly with a bishop, and Rick frowned at the board, rapidly revising his strategy even as part of him wondered whether it was worth the effort. The problem with chess competitions was that everyone else cared so much about winning, which made it feel somehow unfair if he won, since the point of it all, for him, was never the winning. If he won, that was fine, but if she won, that was fine too, because it was about strategy, move and countermove, and if those were well played, then what was there to regret?
He had just picked up a knight to counter her bishop when the double doors that separated the silent conference room from the rest of the hotel slammed open and gunfire strafed the ceiling. People started screaming, and Rick dove beneath the questionable safety of the table. His opponent remained petrified in her chair, and he dragged her out of it and under the table before he took a moment to scan the room, to identify and count the assailants and …
"Hell," he said out loud. There were nine attackers, eight in dark clothes and generic white clown masks, one in a purple suit and a really bad makeup job. The Joker had escaped from Arkham four months ago, and everyone had known it was only a matter of time until he resurfaced in Gotham to provoke his favorite opponent, the Batman.
The under-clowns spread out to cover the crowd and the exits with their machine guns, while the Joker seized an unlucky competitor and held a knife to her throat. "Nobody leaves and nobody moves," he called out cheerfully, "or I don't have to tell you all what happens to this delightful young lady."
Rick thought frantically as the Joker's henchmen began pulling the chess players out from under the tables and shoving them into a rough line. It was unbelievable luck that he should be here, at the first strike of the Joker's new campaign. If there were some way he could separate him from his underlings, he might be able to take him down without giving himself away. But what was the Joker after?
Rick's erstwhile opponent whimpered in fear as the clowns threw away the chairs at the table next to them and dragged out the teenager who huddled there. She shrank back and scrabbled at the floor with her hands as though she would crawl away. Rick grabbed her arm and whispered fiercely, "Do what they tell you and they won't hurt you." He hoped that was the truth.
The clowns were up to them then, and they were shoved into line with the rest. The Joker, dragging his whimpering hostage with him, began walking down the line like an inspector, murmuring as he went, "No, no, no, oh you are not what I am looking for at all," shaking his head regretfully as he paraded past the best under-twenty chess minds in the state.
"No, no, no, ah …" He hesitated in front of boy five places down from Rick, then shook his head and continued.
Pick me, Rick thought. Whatever it is you're looking for, pick me. He felt a sudden sharp pain in his palm and realized in surprise that he still clenched the black knight, the corner of the piece digging sharply into his hand.
"No, no, no … Aaaah," Joker sighed in satisfaction as he came face to face with Rick. "There you are. I'll take this one," he announced to the room in general and gestured for one of his underlings to march Rick forward and out of the room at gunpoint. But as Rick started to move, urged by the not so gentle nose of a handgun, the Joker reached out and seized his clenched fist.
Despite all his training, Rick jerked reflexively back, his skin crawling at the contact. The Joker ignored him and pried at the closed fingers. "What have we here? Aaaah," he murmured as he wrenched away the black knight. He looked at it with one eyebrow raised, and then he tucked it back into Rick's hand, closing his fingers gently around it. "Why don't you hang on to this? You might need it."
Rick cautiously flexed his wrists inside the tight coils of rope that bound his arms to the wooden chair back. He'd managed to wedge the black knight between his wrist and the rope as the clowns were tying him, and he thought he could slip free, but he hesitated to make the experiment until it was absolutely necessary. Things had worked out better than he had dared to hope. Although he was currently very much the Joker's prisoner, he had been taken to what he was almost certain was a base of operations. The Batman would be here soon, guided by the powerful, if tiny, impulse device imbedded in Rick's shoe, and until then, his only job was to make sure the Joker stayed on the premises.
The door burst open and slammed against the concrete wall. Holding a home video camera in one hand and balancing a tripod over his shoulder with the other, the Joker sauntered in, humming under his breath. "Thank you so much for waiting," he said, as his eyes fell on Rick. "Now, if you'll just give me a moment to set up, we'll get today's program started." Humming again, he set up his tripod and balanced the camera on top of it, issuing pleased clucking noises as he hit buttons and focused the lens on his victim.
"Now." The Joker sat down across from Rick, folded his hands on the tabletop and leaned forward with an earnest expression. In the harsh fluorescent light, his crudely painted face looked sallow, like the yellowed whites of his eyes. His irises were dark and curiously dull, and Rick found he couldn't bear to meet that dead gaze for more than a few seconds.
But if his eyes were dead, his tone was lively, full of intimate nuances and shades of expression, as though he had a grand secret and was just about to let Rick in on it. "Richard, may I call you Richard? I'm sure you've heard that everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame and guess what? Yours is today! You, you lucky boy, are going to be on television!" He beamed at Rick, as though honestly expecting him to be excited. "Now, don't be nervous. All you have to do is sit in that chair—well, it's not like you can do anything else—and read this when I say go. Are we clear?"
A shock of horror ran through Rick as he scanned the brief paragraph. Even to buy time … "What if I don't?" he asked quietly.
The Joker sighed heavily. "That wouldn't be very sportsmanlike of you now, would it? If you're not going to play the game, then we'll have to have fun some other way. Maybe like this," he pulled a short, stubby knife from a pocket and put it on the table, "or like this," he laid a long, thin blade next to it, "or possibly even like this." The last knife was hooked and clattered dully as he dropped it next to its fellows. "I'm really up for either option, so …" The Joker threw his hands wide in a gesture of generosity. "It's your call."
"Are you going to make the tape to ask for a ransom?" Rick asked, trying desperately to think, to know what was the right thing to do.
"Oh no, no, nononono. I would never do something so unoriginal. I mean, that's obviously what everyone expects. Kidnap the ward of the richest man in town, ask for a lot of money, promise the darling brat's safe return. No. Just saying it makes me incredibly bored. Doesn't it bore you? I mean, really …" The Joker dipped his head and raised his eyebrows, as though he seriously expected an answer, but when Rick said nothing he continued, "So what will it be?"
"I'll read it," Rick mumbled.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the contestant chooses option A!" the Joker announced grandly, then hurried around with a short, bouncy stride to adjust the camera. "Now, big smile and … action!"
Rick forced the words on the sheet to come into focus. "If a piece of Wayne Enterprises property is not blazing every hour, on the hour …" he was aware, as he read, of the Joker moving behind him "… there is one piece of Wayne Enterprises property that will certainly be on fire." As he finished the short message, a trickle of fluid pattered down on his hair and shoulders. He instinctively squeezed his eyes shut as the gasoline fumes assaulted his nose, and he felt the small stream drench his shirt and his jeans.
A moment later, a dry cloth carefully patted his face, as the Joker crooned, "Just a moment, I want you to be able to see everything. Now, look at the camera and say goodbye to our audience."
Rick's eyes flew open and he flinched as a heavy arm descended on his shoulders. The Joker was waving furiously at the camera, chanting, "Goodbye now! Bye! Goodbye now!" Then he ran around and stopped the tape. "I thought that went very well, don't you? See, there was nothing to be nervous about." He popped out the tape and handed it to the guard standing by the door. "Run this down to our friends at GCN. And make it snappy, the clock is ticking!"
He shut the door behind the courier with a satisfied little bang, and hop-skipped back over to dismantle the camera and tripod. As soon as the equipment was packed away, he picked up the case and headed for the door.
Rick thought fast. If the Joker left, he might be anywhere by the time Batman arrived. It was essential that he keep the enemy here, in the room. "You're not going to get away with this," he blurted because he couldn't come up with anything better on the spot.
The Joker wasn't impressed by it either. Dropping the case, he stormed over to the table. "Why?" he hissed. "Why does everybody. Tell. Me. That." He pounded his fists on the table in time to the words. "It's so boring. And I hate being bored. That's it." He pulled out the chair across from Rick and thumped into it. "I'm staying here until you ask me an original question. Surely, that's not too much to ask. You look like a bright kid. Go on, ask me anything. Anything you can dream up. But don't, please don't," he held out his hands in a pleading, defenseless gesture, "ask me why I'm doing this. That's another one everyone always asks. Why? Why?! It really bugs me. Do I have to have a reason? I mean, what's wrong with doing it for the sheer joy of the thing? Hmmm? Reasons, reasons, everybody has to have a reason." He waved his hands wildly over his head. "Nobody's spontaneous anymore." Drawing a deep breath, he visibly calmed himself, crossed his legs, and folded his hands on his knee, looking at Rick attentively. "Go ahead. Ask."
Rick pretended to hesitate. "I … did have one question, but it's kind of personal."
"Anything you like," the Joker repeated generously.
"You've made it clear that you chose the Joker as your persona because you think people in general take things too seriously. Is that right?"
"Well … sure. Why not?"
"But … look, man, don't take this the wrong way. It's just that I get my picture taken a lot, so I think about these things, you know?"
"Go ahead," the Joker urged. "Don't be shy."
Rick looked at him earnestly. " I can't help wondering why you don't take more pride in your appearance. You've got this great suit ("That's very kind of you" the Joker interjected) but your make-up is … let's face it, man, you're flaking around the edges."
"Now that," the Joker said in satisfaction, "is original."
Rick mentally patted himself on the back.
"I'm really glad you asked that question. The thing is, it's not about looking good for the camera. I mean really, do I seem like the kind of guy who worries about that?"
"No, not really."
"It goes back to that whole idea of not taking things too seriously. Sure, I'm the Joker, I enjoy stirring up a little anarchy, but when things don't go my way, when the Batman throws me back in Arkham, do I get all bent out of shape? No! That would be against my entire philosophy. And speaking of the Batman, there is someone who takes things entirely too seriously. I don't know if you've ever seen that outfit he wears? But trust me, no guy who knows how to laugh when the joke's on him dresses like that."
Genuinely curious, Rick asked, "What is with this weird obsession you have with the Batman?"
The Joker sighed, looking disappointed. "That's not such an original question. But I'll answer it. Because, the truth is, I am obsessed. I love talking about the Batman." He smacked his lips in a self-satisfied way and continued, "We have a very special relationship, Batsy and I. He's my rock—I know he's always going to be there for me, inspiring me to my greatest efforts. And don't think I don't appreciate the sacrifice on his part. We both know he'd be a lot more popular if he'd just give in and kill me." He nodded, looking grave. "What he makes possible is something … unique. You might almost say … divine. I told him once that we'd go on for all eternity, he and I. And I believe it." During this last speech, he had leaned farther and farther across the table, until, on the final declaration, his rancid breath washed over Rick's face, and the painted tip of his nose actually brushed the tip of Rick's.
Rick couldn't help it. He jerked back in revulsion, and as his chair twisted, the black knight slipped from its place between the rope and his wrist and clattered onto the floor.
The Joker jerked upright, suddenly alert. "What was that, hmm?" Walking around the table, he spotted the chess piece on the floor. "Oh, you dropped your little horsey. Let me get that for you." He picked it up and set it on the table in front of Rick, then returned to his chair. To Rick's relief, he seemed to have forgotten all about his intention to leave. After the years in Arkham, he was probably enjoying his captive audience. "Do you know why I don't like chess?" He paused expectantly. Apparently it wasn't a rhetorical question.
"Uh … because nothing explodes?"
The Joker laughed. "That's a very good guess! And it's close enough. It's because there's no wild card. All the pieces have all those rules about how they can move. This guy, for example. He can move two spaces up and one over, or, if he's feeling really daring, two spaces over, and one up." The Joker snorted and chanted, "Boring, boring, boring," as he made the knight gallop across the table in time to his words.
"You don't like rules." Rick nodded. "That makes sense."
"Oh, no, no, no. I never said I didn't like rules. Actually, I love rules. I mean, if there were no rules, what would be the point of my breaking them? And that's another reason why I love the Batman. The Batman has rules. Which is why I always win. And I love games where I always win."
Rick frowned. "Dude, you were just locked up for three years. How is that winning?"
The Joker shook his head. "You're looking at it from the wrong angle. Think about it." He held up one gloved finger. "The Batman doesn't catch me. I win." A second finger. "The Batman catches me. He doesn't kill me. I escape, I blow something else up, kill another pathetic Gotham citizen, I win." He held up a final finger. "The Batman catches me. He kills me. He's broken his rule. He breaks his rule, he's like me—no rules. I win."
It was a sick and perverted logic, but what frightened Rick was the way that it made sense. "So where's the thrill?" he asked quickly, to think about something else. "If you know you're always going to win."
"It's not about winning," sighed the Joker. "Didn't they teach you anything in kindergarten? It's about how you play the game. Strategy, move and counter-move. I won't deny that the fact that I always win is a plus. But if the game is well played, what does it matter?"
The words were too familiar. Rick felt sick.
The Joker continued, musing almost to himself. "Deep down, I know he feels the same way." Shaking his head, he looked at his watch. "Well, time certainly flies when you're having fun. Your hour is almost up. Let's hope, for your sake, that something is burning up there," he pointed to the ceiling, "so it doesn't have to down here. Why don't I go and check?"
He pranced over to the door and pulled it open. "Number thirty-five? Where are you number thirty-five?" Puzzled by the absence of his sentry, he started to take a step out the door, then jumped backward. But he wasn't fast enough. A gauntleted fist smashed against his jaw, followed by a second blow to his temple. The Joker slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Rick dropped his ropes and stood. "You took your time."
"Sorry," the Bat growled. "The police were disorganized." He pointed overhead, where heavy footsteps and shouts could now be heard. "They're rounding up the rest of the gang." He dropped to his knees to tie the Joker's hands.
"Why don't you kill him?" Rick suddenly demanded.
The Batman paused in his task and look up, his eyes fathomless gleams of darkness. "A long time ago, he was human. But he tried to turn life into a game. And then he got lost in it." He bent back to his knot.
Rick couldn't let it go. "He said that if you killed him, he'd win. You'd be like him."
Batman glanced up again. "Killing the Joker would be like shooting a mad dog. If he won, it would only be because he wanted to die."
"If he's a mad dog, why not shoot?"
"It's hard," the Bat said, standing and reaching for the door.
"Being human." He slipped out the door and was gone.
For you or for him? Rick wanted to ask. And what about me? What do I do, if maybe he's not as different from me as I believed he was?
He picked up the black knight and dropped it into his pocket as he heard the police thumping down the stairs. Tonight, he'll be back in Arkham, he thought, looking down at the still figure of the Joker. And maybe tomorrow he'll escape again. If he does, does he win?
Or maybe, he thought suddenly, it doesn't matter if he wins. Because we're not playing his game. It's not a game. That's what makes us different. Isn't it?
Maybe that was it. But all Rick knew, really knew, at the moment was that the gas fumes were burning his nose and giving him a headache. And that, at the moment, he didn't really care about deep answers to the meaning of life. All he wanted was a shower.
A/N Please remember:
Visions of Batman